Nothing is perhaps more boring than restraint. Yet, restraint is a dominant focus of gameplay in Mafia.
In this simulation of a 1930s-era mobster flick, you play Tommy (no, not that Tommy, but the requisite GTA comparisons will be coming soon, I promise) a former cabbie turned mobster turned turncoat and stool pigeon. Indeed, Mafia‘s story dominantly revolves around a cinematic frame-tale, in which Tommy tells his story to a detective in order to convince him that he’s got good enough testimony to make a deal with the cops and keep himself alive despite his former boss’s desire to bump him off.
As noted, this game is about playing by the rules to a large degree, though, and, in this sense, it’s a far cry from the obviously similar Grand Theft Auto-like design. At the same time, it might be noted that this game is a port of a 2-year-old PC game, so while similar, it is less derivative of recent GTA games than one might initially imagine. This is a game about boosting, driving, and wrecking cars in a fully realized 1930s mockup of gangland Chicago. You do play a mobster on the rise (and eventual fall from grace) and you do also get to jump out of your car for a little Tommy Gun-driven mayhem (as opposed to simply vehicular mayhem). But, if anything, this game is like GTA only much, much, much slower.
This brings us back to the notion of restraint in that the cars are based on 1930s models and all too realistically so. You won’t be gunning and heading back to the streets for a quick getaway, you’ll be gunning and waiting for your car to get rolling and waiting and waiting. Did I mention that these cars are slow?
In addition, to the realistic engines and limited horsepower of the cars, you’re also going to have to be concerned about the rules of the road. You can get ticketed for breaking the speed limit (which is only likely if you find a good hill to coast down—you may break 70mph), which on the face of it might seem problematic. As I mentioned, nothing is more boring than restraint, and, if GTA has taught us anything, it’s that the life of a virtual gangster is about breaking all the rules, running red lights, screaming down the street at 100mph-plus in a Cheetah or Infernus, and possibly gunning down a little old lady if she gets in your way. Yet, like the cars themselves, once you get accustomed to the idea that your car might not be able to outdo Fred Flintstone’s foot-powered rock-mobile in a drag race, you begin to realize how authentic this notion is. Unlike Tommy Vercetti, this Tommy is a mobster that realizes the need to keep a low profile and, while taking on the law at times, he realizes that it’s better not to piss off the man unnecessarily.
There is no such thing as pure freedom even for a criminal.
It is this sense of realism that really makes The Getaway a clearer parallel in terms of design to Mafia, than any GTA game. The Getaway supposedly abandons the sometimes cartoony world of GTA for the grimmer, grittier “reality” of the London underworld. Indeed The Getaway‘s claim was that it would be more realistic and more immersive than any prior game in this subgenre, spending an elaborate amount of time recreating a living, breathing London and eschewing the notion of gameplay standbys like a map or health meters, etc. Instead, like Mafia, The Getaway supposedly drew its influence from cinema and none of the HUDs and other hoo-hurrah associated with gameplay were ever part of a Guy Ritchie movie.
Given this comparison, though, Mafia far outshines its competition. If London is faithfully recreated in The Getaway, it’s also a bit drab with shop fronts that look like posterboards pasted to a line of buildings. Mafia’s ‘30s era Chicago, while not necessarily an exact replica, is breathtaking with high wire suspension bridges, el tracks that run throughout the city, and working trolley cars. Between the ‘30s swing and jazz of the soundtrack and these iconic sights, I felt like I had been transported back to this era of guns, gangsters, and hooch.
Also, the addition of a map adds to both the realism and immersion of the game. I never understood what was so realistic about playing a reformed mobster who has ostensibly lived much of his adult life in the London underworld, yet, who keeps getting lost in the city he calls home. For a former Chicago cabbie, being able to anticipate the next turn and knowing how to get to the hospital strikes me somehow as more realistic than apparently losing all memory of a city I should know like the back of my hand.
The one place Mafia falls down in this regard is in the “on foot” sequences, the perspective of which seem to be built on a first person shooter’s engine, despite its third person perspective. When on foot, your character moves and pivots in the same manner you would in a first person shooter. To get a sense of this effect, imagine playing Doom, but, instead of carrying a shotgun in your hand, you’re wearing a hand puppet of a mobster who you can turn, swivel, and use to shoot at things (because the puppet happens to be armed with a Tommy gun). If the game is immersive, this stilted perspective and “floating” mobster tends to distract a bit much and reminds you that you’re playing a game—not living out this “movie.”
Finally, Mafia also outshines both of its rivals in terms of its plot, but again emphasizes the restraint inherent to this game. Unlike GTA and like The Getaway, the plot is on rails. Your experience of the city is largely guided by the narrative as the plot unfolds in chapters. What this does remind the player, though, is some of the beauty of a lack of freedom in a game that tells a tight, well-constructed plot. If GTA allows for freedom, its narrative is largely an afterthought. While Vice City has a pretty good story; it still fails to tell a truly great story—perhaps, largely due to the fact that to play GTA, you never necessarily have to even bother with the mission-related plots, and, even if you do, they only develop its characters briefly through minute long cut scenes and plot “twists” that are so scantily explained or developed that they are hardly compelling. Mafia has a surprisingly rewarding and very cinematic plot that develops largely around these chapters as Tommy recounts his history and you experience it. The plot is markedly less clichéd than that of The Getaway, which steals relentlessly and less interestingly from Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino’s films. Plus, the character models and voice acting is generally quite good despite a lack of big name voice talent.
So, I guess restraint isn’t all bad, assuming that restraint leads to a tightly controlled plot and a gritty, but realistic tale of guns, dames, and men in very nicely tailored suits.